SeaWorld: Treading Water or Changing Tide as Other Amusement Parks See Increases in Attendance?

When you think about SeaWorld, I’m sure the first thing to pop into your mind is the documentary Blackfish or orcas doing tricks or orcas hurting trainers. I’m sure the first thing on your mind is not that SeaWorld shares rose 12% throughout December 2016. But things may finally be looking up for SeaWorld. For the first time in years, SeaWorld is closing in on market forecasts for other amusement parks. Technavio analysts expect the global amusement park market to grow at a CAGR of 8.17% from 2016 to 2021, and SeaWorld is riding that wave.

Blackfish = Blacklist

After the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, SeaWorld’s stock and attendance was hit hard. In 2014, SeaWorld saw a 12% decrease in attendance. In 2015, Disneyland saw a 9% increase in attendance, while SeaWorld was looking at a further 7% decrease. In 2016, SeaWorld Orlando was the tenth most attended amusement park in North America, with nearly five million visitors. This is up from 3.5 million visitors in 2015. In comparison, the number one amusement park (Magic Kingdom, which is part of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts) saw more than 21 million visitors in 2016.

Amusement parks use celebrations and new attractions to bring in more people. And while most amusement parks see increased attendance due to these, SeaWorld’s attendance was not positively affected. An expert in the field states that the top 20 amusement parks in North America saw an average increase of nearly 6% in attendance in 2015. (Compare this to the 7% decrease SeaWorld saw in the same year.)

So what has changed in recent months to lead to SeaWorld’s share increasing by 12%? A couple of things; firstly, SeaWorld has agreed to end their orca breeding program. Secondly, SeaWorld has agreed to end the theatrical orca shows. Thirdly, the first non-US SeaWorld will be opened in Abu Dhabi in 2022 and it will be the first park without orcas. Finally, the new CEO of SeaWorld, Joel Manby, is looking to add entertainment such as more rollercoasters rather than focus on the live entertainment aspect.

The changes and what they will mean for attendance

A spokesperson for SeaWorld recently announced that SeaWorld San Diego has ended its theatrical orca show. SeaWorld parks in San Antonio and Orlando will end their shows by 2019. However, orcas will still be used in “Orca Encounter,” where attendees will learn more about orcas. How does this differ from the theatrical display that has been cancelled, you ask? Good question. SeaWorld is upfront with the fact that trainers will still give cues and attendees will still see the whales jumping through the air. The only apparent difference is that SeaWorld will focus more on providing information to viewers about orcas and their lives in the wild rather than simply entertaining.

SeaWorld does have a conservation and research side to it as well. The HUBB SeaWorld Research Institute has been around longer than the SeaWorld amusement park. The Institute focuses on learning about the animals under their care and extrapolates this learning to animals in the wild. The group also passes their knowledge on to industries, such as transportation and fishing, that impact the species. In recent years, SeaWorld research has turned its attention to how humans are affecting the natural resources of the oceans and what the implications are.

Perhaps this change in focus to a more environmental and research-oriented amusement park has appeased some Americans. If that is the case, we can expect attendance at SeaWorld to rise in 2017. However, there are still strong voices advocating for its boycott: PETA is asking for the organization to release the animals (SeaWorld housed 89,000 animals as of September 2016) to sea sanctuaries and the director of Blackfish holds that these changes are meant to make attendees feel better, not the animals.

So what does 2017 have in store for SeaWorld parks? Only time will tell, but for now, SeaWorld is starting to regain some of its buoyancy and it is worth keeping an eye on.

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